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How do Cubans Make Electronic Music Without Reliable Internet?

The cost and inconvenience of getting online in Cuba is forcing its small but bustling dance music community to seek out creative ways to make beats.

DJs have plenty of reasons to be nocturnal creatures—3 AM primetime slots, late-night studio sessions, globetrotter's jetlag, SoundCloud insomnia. But Isnay Rodriguez has an unusual reason to stay up late: reliable Internet access. Rodriguez, who records and performs as DJ Jigüe, lives in Cuba, a country with a 30 percent internet penetration. Until just a few years ago, there was no way for the average citizen to get online.

Like the rest of us, Rodriguez needs his fix. He runs the first independent hip-hop imprint in Cuba, Guampara Music, plans to tour abroad as a DJ, and works on the side as an audiovisual producer for visiting filmmakers; the web is essential to his career, chiefly for communication with the outside world. That's why at 4 AM, he finds himself in the park with his laptop, taking advantage of the dead of night when fewer users are slowing down the already creaky connection there, reminiscent of the dial-up days of the 90s.

In Cuba, private Internet connections don't exist, but the fiber-optic cables stitching together the world's broadband connections are belatedly arriving to the island, so now it's up to the government to liberate access. Plans are afoot to roll out residential links in the near future. In the meantime, major cities have WiFi in a handful of public spaces. While Cubans don't walk down the street glued to their smartphones like much of the world, they do throng to hotspots with laptops and tablets in tow. In Santiago, where I visited in May, parks dating back to the 19th century with ornate fountains and statues of dead generals on horseback are the site of a 21st century scene: locals Skyping with relatives, streaming YouTube, posting on Facebook.

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But getting on the grid comes at a cost. Users must procure WiFi cards with a scratch-off PIN from the national telecom company, ETECSA, and like many staples in Cuba, scarcity is the rule, not the exception. Licensed sellers like hotels and state-run retailers often run out, so hustlers selling the Nauta cards, as they're called, hawk them day and night at Santiago's central plaza, one of the city's main hotspots.

Will "Quantic" Holland recording in a tiny Santiago studio with local singer Diógenes y su Changüí (Photo by Reeve Rixon)

For the privilege, users must pony up $2 per hour; in a country where average salaries are $25 per month, Internet can be a considerable expense. However, recent surveys suggest most Cubans make something extra under the table, which includes DJs. Gigs fall in the category of alegal or extra-legal—neither against the law nor explicitly permitted in a socialist economy where private enterprise is heavily regulated.

The whole world knows what Cuba has and doesn't have.—Pauza's Paula Fernandez

"Internet is the necessary platform," Rodriguez tells me in his hometown of Santiago, where we met ahead of the inaugural Manana Festival. "And we're not really connected to the web."

The worldwide proliferation of personal computers, software, and Internet access has led to the mass democratization of music production—there are kids in bedrooms all over the world making beats—but the same doesn't hold true for Cuba, where all of those ingredients are both in short supply and difficult to buy, given the average income in the country in 2015 was approximately $26 per month, according to Cuba's National Office of Statistics. The few who do try to make a career in electronic music, meanwhile, need patience and perseverance. As Paula Fernandez, one-half of the Havana duo Pauza, tells me in a fit of exasperation, "The whole world knows what Cuba has and doesn't have." She's sick of the pity party that comes with questions about life on the island, but recognizes that the answer is also her reality.

Photo by Jude Goergen

Navigating Nauta

Havana-based Wichy de Vedado, who has been performing for 16 years, told me he uses his precious internet time on Soulseek, a peer-to-peer file-sharing network. Pauza's Fernandez said she trolls Beatport. But ultimately, the cost and inconvenience of getting online means that DJs and producers are severely restricted in how they use the internet, a tool that has become essential to dance music scenes the world over.

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For one thing, if you're an electronic musician in Cuba, you forget about advertising parties online. In Havana's small but bustling dance music community, old-fashioned flyers and posters still hold currency and at best, an announcement will go out via mass text message. But most people rely on boca a boca—word of mouth. During Manana, Rodriguez's manager handed out pocket-sized flyers and sent out mass texts with encouragement to spread the word for an impromptu Guampara showcase pre-party.

We're virgins in terms of information.—Rezak's Armando Qintana

But limited Internet access also hampers the creative process. The world's music library simply isn't at Cubans' fingertips. As Oliver Ortiz, one-half of the tech-house duo Rezak put it to me, "We're virgins in terms of information." His partner, Armando Qintana, elaborated, "The lack of information, that is the challenge." They are vaguely aware that Berlin is a hotbed of techno, for example, but staying up to date on the comings and goings of the dance music scene abroad is nigh impossible.

Iván Grajalo and Julio Cesar Jimenez make beats together under the name Electro Palestina. Grajalo, a professor by day, is fortunate enough to have an Internet connection at his university—not that his office hookup is much of an improvement. "I download YouTube videos because I can't even stream them," he complains to me. "Being a fan of electronic music in Cuba is like being a sailor in Paraguay [a landlocked country]."

Warp recording artists Plaid in the studio with Santiago's Obbatuké during Manana, a Cuban electronic music festival that encouraged collaborations between local and international artists (Photo by Reeve Rixon)

While the duo's taste trends toward UK dubstep by the likes of Burial, Benga, and Skream, the 39-year-old Grajalo confesses to using his limited bandwidth these days to download Milli Vanilli and Ace of Base music videos that he couldn't watch as a teenager in the early '90s. They find books an easier proposition, and recently devoured a bootlegged e-book copy of Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound.

"The thing about Internet in Cuba is that we're detached from it," Grajalo explained. "It's not whether you have it or you don't, it's that we don't even know what to look for."

What little nuggets of digital gold they are able to mine from the interwebs in turn get passed among their small but rabid circle of electronic music heads in eastern Cuba, which they have jokingly nicknamed the Departmento Oriental de Emulación Electrónica (Eastern Department of Electronic Emulation) as a parody of the Cuban government's penchant for bureaucratic nomenclature, which uses "emulation" as a euphemism for "competition" (a socialist no-no term).

Generally, one person downloads an mp3, video file, or cracked software, which then circulates by USB flash drive among the crew. It's the same method used by El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Packet), an island-wide person-to-person digital media distribution system emanating from Havana, which delivers a one-terabyte curated selection of Hollywood blockbusters, Latin American soaps, and blinged-out music videos to a hungry audience willing to pay. The government turns a blind eye to the commercial enterprise, which some have likened to an alternative Internet.

El Paquete is the best way to make music go viral in Cuba, but every electronic producer I spoke to—even OGs like DJ Jigüe and Wichy de Vedado—have yet to crack this underground media mafia. Instead, reggaetón dominates its offline airwaves, which circulate by flash drives rather than online streams. That means Cubans can only hear local electronic music at live gigs without any chance to listen at home, which is a tough way to build a fanbase.

DJ Jigüe in Santiago de Cuba (Photo by Jude Goergen)

Hardware Headaches

Hardware is another matter, with computer purchases only legalized in 2008, though at prices way out of reach for everyday Cubans. But laptops have been slowly filtering into Cuban hands through the black market since earlier in the 2000s. Doctors, the country's biggest export, are permitted to bring back one computer each from their tours of duty abroad, which usually go into circulation in the underworld. The recent easing of travel restrictions to the U.S. has only accelerated the import trend.

Rodriguez remembers his first computer, which he got in 2008 after moving to Havana. "It was just the tower," he recalled. "No monitor, no keyboard, no mouse." As a touring DJ with Cuba's leading hip-hop duo, Obsesión, he had the chance to travel abroad and bring back his own gear. Still, he continues to barter for audio gear in lieu of cash payments as he improves his home studio piece by piece.

There are no Guitar Centers in Cuba, so all audio gear has to come in from abroad. House producer Roberto Puig covets sound cards, interfaces, and Midi controllers. He also claims to have one of only five pairs of Technics MK1200 turntables in the whole country. Puig is fortunate. "We haven't learned how to play with controllers because we don't have them," Electro Palestina's Cesar Jimenez told me. "It's all Virtual DJ or Traktor; we've never gotten past the laptop."

We haven't learned how to play with controllers because we don't have them. It's all Virtual DJ or Traktor; we've never gotten past the laptop.—Electro Palestina's Cesar Jimenez

For musical training, however, Cuba has a serious pedigree of state-run conservatories and institutional support for traditional music ensembles. There's even a government-run hip-hop talent recruiter, the Agencia Cubana de Rap. Pauza's Fernandez and Zahira Sanchez were lucky to take advantage of the only public resource to support electronic music: the National Electroacoustic Laboratory (LNME in Spanish). Although founded in 1979 by avant-garde composer Juan Blanco to nurture electroacoustic composition among Cuba's classical musicians, in recent years the LNME has opened its doors to dancefloor-oriented electronic production; it even offers the country's first DJ course specifically for women, where Pauza cut their chops. They used that opportunity to hone their set as one of Cuba's few live electronic acts and produced their debut album in the laboratory's lone recording studio. Without the ability to stream YouTube instructional videos at home, learning the ropes of complex audio equipment—even getting access to it at all—is vital in order to make a career out of electronic music.

But LNME's tiny booth doesn't offer the trial by fire of a packed crowd. Ultimately, Cuba's limited infrastructure translates into the one and only place locals can hear electronic music: the club. Sound-systems are patchy at best—Manana Festival brought in $30,000 worth of gear to shore up what was available in Santiago – and DJs lament that they must haul their own gear even to higher-end venues because clubs are set up not for DJs, but for the live bands that are Cuba's musical bread and butter.

Casa Micaela, a popular restaurant-cum-nightclub in the Santiago historic district, was a case in point. After the kitchen closes, the basement space opens up, like it did for the Guampara showcase the day before Manana. It had all the trappings of a proper club—air conditioning, a fully stocked bar, security and a door person. But just hours before the gig, DJ Jigüe's manager told me they were still scouring Santiago for CDJs. Still, if there's one thing Cuba's electronic scene excels at, it's perseverance. After locating one CDJ from a friend of a friend that only read USB drives, not actual CDs, Jigüe switched gears and played directly off his laptop. By show time, the mojitos were flowing, the dancefloor was packed, and DJ Jigüe was spinning Guampara's tracks for one of Santiago's first foreign audiences, grinning from ear to ear.